Councilmember Yuki Lei Sugimura ignited a social media firestorm last week when she introduced a bill to amend the County Code section relating to animal control. The proposed bill, which did not pass the Housing, Human Concerns, and Transportation Committee, aimed to define “livestock” as animals raised in an agricultural setting for the production of commodities, then exempt all “livestock” from the entire set of rules in Chapter 6.04 of the County Code. These rules include the basic requirement that animal owners treat animals in a “humane manner,” defined as the provision of food, water, shelter, veterinary care, space, and a clean environment.
Animal welfare groups reacted swiftly. Maui Animal Solutions, a local animal rights advocacy group, sent out a call to action that labeled the bill “a nightmare for Maui’s animals” and urged concerned individuals to testify – which they did. A flood of testimony was submitted before the Monday, Nov. 19 HHT Committee meeting amid swirling social media criticism of Councilmember Sugimura, including accusations that the recently re-elected councilwoman is an “animal hater” and in the pocket of “big-ag.,” an industry expected to expand in the old sugarcane fields and which could see increased profit margins through relaxed regulations on animal care. “Put her out to pasture,” one person suggested in one of the nicer comments.
“The proposed legislation was not intended to do what social media post [sic] are saying,” Sugimura responded online. “It was a request from the Maui Cattleman’s [sic] Association for CATTLE only, not ALL LIVESTOCK. This proposed legislation needs to be AMENDED AND DISCUSSED before any legislation can be decided.”
Yet, as written and submitted by Sugimura, the bill exceeded this intent by exempting “livestock,” defined as “domesticated animals raised in an agricultural setting to produce commodities such as meat, milk, leather, and wool.” Such a category would include chickens, goats, pigs, and sheep.
As such, the Maui Cattlemen’s Association, who Sugimura said requested the bill, distanced themselves from the proposal. William Jacintho, the association’s president, asked that the “bill be deferred and discussed further with all affiliated parties” in his testimony to the committee.
“A few years ago, a rancher approached the Maui Cattlemen’s Association regarding a violation letter,” Jacintho said in an attempt to give background for their intentions. The violation was for non-compliance with the “humane manner” treatment requirement, specifically citing a lack of sufficient shelter and adequate bedding. “Natural shade is not suitable shelter under this code,” the 2014 violation letter from the Maui Humane Society read.
Seeking clarification of “suitable shelter,” the MCA went to Councilmember Don Guzman, who then facilitated multiple meetings between MCA and MHS. Guzman drafted new language, but was reassigned to chair a different committee before the legislation could move forward. Sugimura crafted her controversial bill without knowledge of Guzman’s meetings. “And here we are today realizing that this is not acceptable,” Jacintho said.
“Too bad I didn’t talk to you about this before,” Sugimura said to Guzman during the committee meeting after Guzman spoke about his work crafting clarifying language for MCA and MHS. Jacintho suggested a more subtle amendment that would be acceptable to the cattlemen: Add “natural habitat” (such as trees) as sufficient protection for animals, and clarify that bedding is only needed under barn and dog house conditions.
“The meetings I had [with the Maui Cattlemen’s Association representatives] were not about coming to a compromise, it was simply myself and my enforcement director clarifying how the law reads and how we enforce the law,” Maui Humane Society CEO Jerleen Bryant told me. “We have always considered trees adequate for shade as long as there’s enough tree cover to handle the number of animals that would be seeking the shade.” Whether a natural shelter is “suitable” depends on the number of animals using that shelter, weather conditions in the area, and the quality of the plant itself, she explained.
“That particular case,” Bryant added, referring to the 2014 violation that sparked the MCA’s requests for clarification and a County Code amendment, “that person had one tree and that tree had died. There were no leaves on that tree and so therefore that tree did not give any sort of shelter or shade to the animals.”
“We’ve had very amicable meetings with [the MCA],” she continued. “That’s why I was very surprised when this came out. Nobody had asked for our input or anything, and I think that was a bad move because it just created a lot of drama that was unnecessary.”
After an hour of public testimony and days put through the social media outrage machine, Sugimura expressed regret for introducing the bill, which she explained was crafted over email with language from the cattle industry. “I apologize for putting it in because I grew up with animals and pets, and we even had a cow when I grew up, but it wasn’t my intent to be so negligent,” she concluded.
“I think everybody understood it was a poor attempt at getting what they wanted,” Bryant said. “It was a bad bill because it would have literally stripped protection away from a lot of animals.”
While the bill was effectively killed, MCA and MHS expect the issue of suitable shelters and clarifying language to persist until resolved by further legislation, especially as livestock operations expand and Hawai‘i moves towards increasing local food production.
Image 1 courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Image 2 courtesy Yuki Lei Sugimura